We live in the natural world. The universe we inhabit is a wondrous place governed by the seemingly magical laws of physics that brought the material world we know into existence over some 13.5 Billion years. On our planet, our “pale blue dot” as described by Carl Sagan, over the last 250,000 or so years an amazing thing happened: The universe –or at least our part of it- became self-aware. A millions-of-years process of evolution produced Homo Sapiens who would eventually come to recognize their place in the universe. We have come to understand the physical rules that govern us and even how to control or defy some of the very immutable laws that brought about our existence, all to the betterment of our lives.
The last 400 years or so of our history does not qualify as even the tip of the iceberg of our time on earth, yet it has yielded a deep well of knowledge that has completely transformed not only our quality of life but our very knowledge of self. We owe this tremendous transformation to the methodical, honest study of the natural world; we owe this transformation to …….science.
Almost everyone who has been through a formal education has been exposed to some study of the natural world in one or many branches of what is commonly referred to as “science”. As such I believe most people come away with an understanding of what science is that falls into two categories.
Science As The Facts Of Nature : E=MC2 ,Albert Einstein’s famous equation relating mass and energy and illustrating the interchangeability of the two is an artifact of modern understanding that even the most novice of us is familiar with. Newton’s laws of motion or Bernoulli’s Principle are other example of the facts of the natural world which we may have learned or simply just be aware of. These facts of nature as I would like to call them are what many people understand science to be, they certainly wouldn’t be wrong; this is part of the answer.
Science As An Explanation Of Phenomena : What causes lightning? Is it the wrath of the Viking god Thor or a discharge of electrons from high to low electric potential? How does a 640 ton aircraft lift of the ground and travel across continents? What mechanisms allow these awe inspiring feats to take place? The explanations to these questions- that is -the description of how events in the natural world occur is another common understanding of science, and this too is not wrong.
The Scientific Method: I would submit that by far the more important definition of science is not simply the repository of knowledge we have amassed. To be sure much of this was chanced upon accidentally over the course of history. Instead the true meaning of science lies in what we call The Scientific Method. More important than what we know is the question of how we come to know. Science then in its truest sense, is the process of careful observation, logical and intelligent attempts at potential explanations (hypotheses), and honest verifications of these conditional explanations. Combining this with vigorous attempts to find gaps in these explanations-all carried out in an open and transparent intellectual environment, allowing many independently working experts to attempt to falsify the current explanation gives rise to the reliable body of knowledge upon which our lives have come to depend.
Science is the study of the natural world in the most honest and efficient way yet known to man. Science is truth. Not relative “truths” put forward by unsubstantiated faith and imposed on mankind by the vacuous credibility of dogmatic authority.
Science is open, honest and humble. Science understands the fallibility of its practitioners and makes every conceivable attempt to correct for this. Dogma revels in the conservation of antiquated ideas for their own sake; science by contrast grows stronger with every changing position – justified by new evidence or a demonstrably better understanding of previous data.
Science is how we come to know our universe.
Science releases us from our atavistic ignorance. It allows us to embrace our philosophical prowess to ask with clarity of reasoning, freed from dogma, that question that any conscious child of this universe must ask: Is there a purpose to my existence and what is it?
And then……well then…..Science helps us to answer this.